Romancing the novel

Johnny Weissmuller and Maureen O'Sullivan as Tarzan and Jane
Johnny Weissmuller and Maureen O’Sullivan as Tarzan and Jane

When, in the early 70s, I spent a year or so as a library assistant (not ‘assistant librarian’, as I was firmly told) life seems in retrospect to have been a lot simpler. Information technology was in its infancy, microfiche was cutting edge for library users, and fiction was arranged on library shelves according to a simple fourfold system: Fiction (by author, in alphabetical order), Detective, Western … and Romance. (Teenage reading, what we might now call Young Adult, was still shelved under Children, hived off in its own ghetto and marked Juvenile. How fashions change.)

‘Fiction’ — that is, the works shelved by author surname from A to Z — is such a broad canvas: I’ve seen it referred to as mainstream (that is, ‘popular’), literary (niche, that is, not so popular), commercial (makes piles of money, usually in inverse proportion to its literary worth) and contemporary (probably published in the last year or so, certainly excluding classics like Dickens, Hardy and Austen). In truth these are categories with very fluid boundaries, often overlapping.

(To my mind there are in reality only two types of fiction, fiction you like and fiction you don’t, but you can’t plan a public library based on personal preferences.)

Where, then, does the Romantic Novel — the last genre we looked at in the creative writing class — sit?

Free library in a phone box, Trecastle, Powys, Wales

That time behind the library counter introduced me to the doyennes of historical romance, Georgette Heyer and Catherine Cookson. Heyer began writing her period novels in 1921 and fifty years later these were still going strong — over thirty of her fifty-odd novels were set in the Georgian or more particularly Regency era. She took as models the works of Jane Austen but included copious details for readers unfamiliar with the social conventions of Austen’s times.

But the romance template pre-existed Austen. Samuel Richardson’s Pamela in 1740 introduced then novel twin concepts: presenting a fiction from a woman’s point of view and ensuring a happy ending, as in a fairytale. Gothick elements came to the fore in works by the Brontës, particularly Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights. In the middle of the 19th century romances continued placing their action in contemporary settings, such as Gaskell’s North and South (1855), though not always with a happy ending for the female protagonist, as Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina (1878) testifies.

Heyer’s resumption of the historical romance genre after the anguish of the first world war may have been welcome, but she was not the first to set her stories in the past — Walter Scott of course had made a career from it in the early 19th century with his Waverley novels. In the mid-20th century Catherine Cookson too saw herself as a historical novelist: she hated being described as a romantic novelist though that was how she was generally perceived. That historical mantle has passed on to the likes of Philippa Gregory and others.

Nor is romance limited to women’s escapist fiction: many classic adventure stories have some love interest in them. For example, in Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan of the Apes a passage which describes how Jane’s “perfect lips had clung to his in burning kisses that had seared a deep brand into his soul — a brand which marked a new Tarzan” could be straight out of a Mills and Boon romance.

Mills and Boon began publishing in 1908; by 1931 they found a ready market and commercial success focusing on cheap romance hardbacks in plain brown wrappers. Their success can be measured by the phrase ‘a Mills and Boon romance’ having entered common parlance. In 1957 they linked up with Harlequin Enterprises to exploit the North American market, being bought by the Canadian company in 1971. Their formula of innocent heroine plus alpha male plus happy ending struck gold. Their guidelines on “how to write the perfect romance” concentrate on readers’ needs for character and conflict:

At the heart of all great romances are two strong, appealing, sympathetic and three-dimensional characters […]
Emotional, character-driven conflict is the foundation of a satisfying romance. Conflict spawns tension and excitement […]

They add that dialogue is “the key tool to giving life, energy and pace to your writing”. All good advice, and not all peculiar to romance writing. If that seems clear enough, the requirements of the various sub-genres are bewildering, as are the range of sub-genres themselves. Most of them are crossovers: romantic suspense, paranormal romance, science fiction, fantasy and time-travel romance. Some have a social dimension: if they’re inspirational they might also necessitate a Christian element; multicultural romance is another sub-genre, while E L James seems to have deliberately strayed into erotic romance territory. It’s all popular stuff — apparently a survey a decade ago in the mid-noughties found that 39% of fiction sold in the US was romance.

I now feel that when I wander into my local library that I ought to see if I can spot romance’s various sub-genres. What’s certain is that they’re unlikely to sport brown paper wrappers; if I was ever tempted to borrow one perhaps I might need to take my own brown cover.

Edward Hodges Baily, A Sleeping Girl (marble sculpture, 1850) © C A Lovegrove

First published 13th March 2015 while studying for a Certificate in Higher Education Creative Writing from Aberystwyth University

40 thoughts on “Romancing the novel

  1. I only see Romance sections in used bookstores. My local library shelves them with regular fiction. This means one must be familiar with a Romance author. Gosh, I haven’t seen a bodice ripper cover in years, so relax, I don’t think a brown cover or bag is required.

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  2. You have forgotten (or overlooked) doctor and nurse romances. I never read them but worked with an elderly woman (she was probably 50) who read nothing else. And there seemed to be an inexhaustible supply. I, being a more literary teenager, was reading yellow Gollancz crime in those days.

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    1. Hah, yes, doctors-and-nurses stories were are a large (and probably overworked) component of Mills & Boon type romances. It’s the Variation on a Theme cover designs that amused me, but AI never got as far as looking inside… And insalubrious crime novels would be much more appropriate for a young female like you than stories of hunky misunderstood male medics, no? 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

        1. Certain types of genre fiction (such as this) it’s so tempting to parody, isn’t it! I think even more than believing in the narrative one is apng one has to absolutely love it, because that kind of almost unconditional engagement with one’s subject (whether genre, thing, or person) always takes the admirer beyond the temptation of parody.

          But there is definitely a market for parody—I believe the gory Austen adaptations (Pride and Prejudice and Zombies was the first, I think) aim to do precisely that with their marsh-up of Regency romance and horror. I don’t think belief in it is necessarily a prerequisite!

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  3. Having become used to associating M&Bs with bodice rippers–which I know applies more to the ‘newer’ titles than the old ones (my mother has and reads many of the older ones), I was surprised to see that Wodehouse’s The Prince and Betty was published first by M&B!

    Heyer’s romances though seem to fall in a different category, perhaps because of their historical detail; I do like them a lot, but now I find I enjoy her detective fiction so much that I end up picking up more of the latter.

    Of the subgenres though, romantic suspense might be one that appealed to me, if there was more suspense than romance.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I too enjoyed Georgette Heyer’s detective fiction. And if course we mustn’t forget Barbara Cartland who wrote insanely popular romances. Said to have wtitten 723 books ( although some were recycled.)

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      1. Oh yes, I’d forgotten her. I’ve never read her, though I may at least try one when I’m ever in the mind for it 🙂
        723 is quite something– almost as prolific as Enid Blyton who wrote 762 (I got that from wikipedia)

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    2. Goodreads handily offers a definition and example of ‘modern’ bodice-rippers, which it suggests became more prevalent from 1970s. To be honest I’ve never been attracted to them (obviously I’m not the target audience!) but I suppose I ought to educate myself sometime rather than taking a superior attitude to this subgenre! I’m guessing the boundaries between bodice-ripper, romantic suspense and the other subgenres must be rather porous though.

      That Wodehouse could be published by M&B shows perhaps that he liked to dabble in all aspects of popular fiction, comic, romantic or whatever.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Oh I don’t care for them at all either. But I do agree on giving them a fair chance before making a judgement. (I haven’t read very many except a couple of M&Bs passed on to me by a friend in college who was addicted. Recently I declined reviewing a book which was described rather differently in its blurb but basically was just a bunch of explicit content strung together–I only made it to page 28)

        Of romances in general, I have read a few which have been surprisingly good (including ones labelled chick lit for instance), and some sadly the opposite, but I do try to pick one up every so often.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Deborah Harkness is only a name to me, I regret I’m unlikely to become acquainted by her fiction anytime soon and especially by the combination of the words ‘love’ and ‘vampire’… 😁

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  4. jjlothin

    Similarly to your “library assistant” job, I once had a job with a large-print publisher, one of my duties being to proofread a stream of genre fiction: westerns, thrillers, mysteries and, of course, romances – Mills & Boon a plenty!

    It was quite an eye-opener to be able to find amongst the total dross some real gems – the prolific western writer Lauran Paine, for example, had a wonderful way with words!

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    1. Ah, Lauran Paine, such a distinctive name that I’m almost tempted to seek her out, especially if you say she was good with language!

      I wonder how Large Print books are doing now, especially now that so many ereaders give you the option of switching to a larger type. We have a friend, a former librarian whose eyesight has deteriorated, who pretty much reads everything on her Kindle these days because of that choice it offers.


      1. jjlothin

        Lauran Paine was actually a male Lauran! He had something like seventy pseudonyms and his idea of a good first date was to take a girl duck shooting (allegedly).

        I would imagine the large print market must have collapsed by now. As you say, why would anyone bother, now that we have Kindles? Much though I prefer, I hasten to say, the feel of a good solid book!

        Liked by 1 person

  5. I love a good romance. In my own time as a library assistant, I read a lot of Georgette Heyer, Catherine Cookson and Mills and Boon, which had their own section, next to the Westerns. The doctor-nurse ones were my favourites. My mum, who made a career out of being a library assistant, adored the M&B books by Betty Neels, which often featured a Dutch doctor and a nurse who won his heart through food. I love your overview of Romance as a genre here, Chris. Romance gets a bad rap, but so many classics are romances – both in the sense of a love story and a literary fiction that draws from life.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. ‘Romance’ has come through a great many transformations in its time, hasn’t it, from the medieval sense of it being a fiction in any Romance language such as French or Italian, through any fantastical medieval fiction and on to the Sturm und Drang / Gothick sensibilities of the 18th and 19th centuries which epitomised the Romantic period but which then became attached primarily to the notion of romantic love. Limiting it only to romantic love and thus omitting all the other sensibilities that classic romances inevitably touched on is I think to diminish it as a genre; so I’m with you on this, especially in the concept of romance drawing from life.

      I do remember the proximity of romances, western and crime in the branch libraries I worked in; our local branch just has crime, YA, SF & Fantasy all close together but no separate romance or western shelves (though there may be carousels for these somewhere that I’ve missed). I quite like a literary romance now and then, but I’ve never tried a M&B type novel!

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      1. I love etymology and how words travel and change meaning through time – romance is one of my favourites. I also like that roman still means novel in French, persisting from that mediaeval sense of the word.

        I used to wonder whether the positioning of the M&B books next to the Cowboy books was so that couples could browse the shelves together. They had special circular stickers, too, instead of the Dewey style. A heart for romance, a six-shooter for Westerns and a dagger for crime. In the branch where my mum worked, crime was so popular it had almost a full run of shelves.

        It’s a long time since I read a M&B – they went a bit racy in the mid-80s, I recall! My mum wouldn’t let me borrow the ones that had an apple logo rather than the rose. But I enjoyed the escapism and, at times unintentional, humour of the classic books, and they were chaste enough for a pre-teen to read.

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        1. It’s odd that I enjoyed the cowboy films on telly in my youth (I can remember all the names—The Lone Ranger, The Cisco Kid, Wagon Train, Cheyenne, Bronco, Rawhide, Bonanza) but never got into reading Westerns. Nor did Crime or Romance draw me; I expect I must have imbibed some snobbiness about them early on, and when I worked in branch libraries I definitely had to wash my hands after handling many of them, they seemed to get grubbier than the hardbacks which were the main stock in trade of libraries half a century ago.


          1. I still love Westerns and have seen some excellent modern takes on the genre at the cinema in recent years (my first ever date with Mr Hicks was the remake of 3:10 to Yuma), but I’ve never read a cowboy book.

            My father-in-law loved them. Especially Zane Grey. I have a Project Gutenberg copy of The U P Trail on my e-reader. I’ll get to it one day.

            One of my jobs as a library assistant was to wipe down the covers of particularly grubby books, usually the ones forcibly repatriated to the library via the overdue books van. It used to puzzle me what people did while reading. At my most hopeful, I decided that they were reading while eating a messy sandwich!

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            1. I remember a woman, Joyce, who had made it her job to clean the protective covers on really grubby returned books at the branch library I was based in during 1971-2. I tried hard not to think what made them so unpleasant to touch!

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  6. Hmm, romance is not my favourite genre. I remember my mother lending me one of her Catherine Cookson books to read when I was younger. I think I got about 30 pages in before I swapped it for one of my Dad’s Clifford Simak or Philip K Dick novels! That’s not to say that the genre isn’t valuable – just not for me.

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    1. It’s not everyone’s cup of tea, I agree, Jo, but having said that I’m glad to tackle the classics of the genre by Austen, the Brontës, Dodie Smith etc because of their literary quality; it’s just the clichéd stuff I wouldn’t particularly seek out (though I don’t mind the odd romcom film for a bit of easy watching).


  7. I didn’t find the classics too bad. I read Pride and Prejudice, Emma and Jane Eyre as part of a deal with my mother so I could afford my own copies of the Foundation trilogy, Foundation’s Edge and Foundation and Earth in Hardback. Being a teacher she was very concerned about the lack of quality in my reading! I still wonder if I would have grown to love graphic novels quite so much if I hadn’t been banned from reading comics as a child! LOL

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    1. So your mother’s ploy didn’t work then?! Weirdly, my parents encouraged me to read widely, including comics, but it took me until the noughties to pick up the odd graphic novel. In other ways though they were very conservative, encouraging me to read adventure classics like Treasure Island, Ivanhoe and similar but the prevailing culture in the 60s was that boys didn’t read girly books, so it took me till this century to appreciate Austen or the Brontës and to read adult novels by women (Blyton, Nesbit and Aiken were of course no problem).


      1. No, her plan backfired I think!

        I remember books being marketed to boys and to girls separately. Some of the Girl’s Anthologies I read as a school junior were awful. Just marriage, children and being kind to animals. Absolutely useless for a young girl who planned on becoming an astronaut! As soon as I could get to the library on my own that all changed and it was adventure and especially space adventures all the way! Such an awesome time!

        I read some of the Bronte sisters and Austin as an adult too, in my thirties after some of the films came out. I think I was quite turned off reading female writers for a long time because of what I’d read as a child. There’s still a fairly strong bias on my bookshelves I am ashamed to say!

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        1. Nah, don’t apologise for what you have on your shelves, read whatever you fancy so long as it does no harm! If you feel the need to justify what you read go for some highfalutin term or reason, ‘niche’ for example, or claim you’re making a long-term study of a genre!

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